Trending Topics

A police advocate’s simple suggestion: Walk a simulated mile in a cop’s shoes

Members of legislative bodies and civilian oversight boards should be urged to engage in some law enforcement training


Having elected officials and others engage in the type of simulation training seen in this VirTra system is a reasonable demand that should generate public attention.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Media during a crisis | Civilian police training | Trust initiative report, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

In Washington State, a local police department needed supplies for a K-9 bomb detection dog, including the dog. Police civilian volunteer Kendra Cook took up the challenge and began what is now a nationally recognized fundraising program for K9s and K9 protective gear, along with other equipment for handlers.

Her advocacy did not stop there.

When helping to present the debut of the new K-9 for her police department at a city council meeting, she was stunned to hear how little the council members knew about the police operations of their city. Knowing about police simulation training available through VirTra, she reached out to the company for help with an initiative to get simulation scenarios made available to government policymakers.

Challenging policymakers to become educated

While corresponding with VirTra, Cook reached out to political leaders in her region to ask if they would be willing to engage in a simulation experience to enhance their understanding of law enforcement issues they legislate about. She received boilerplate responses saying “Thanks for writing and we’ll pass that on,” but no affirmative responses to the offer yet.

Cook began to think about how to connect with lawmakers in more effective ways:

  • Could police agency websites include sample simulations?
  • Could agencies make simulation training more accessible to their service population?
  • Could simulation vendors develop more citizen-oriented programs to help their law enforcement customers educate their citizens?

Corporate cooperation

Meanwhile, a representative from VirTra stayed in contact with Cook, offering availability of their products already deployed in the region to council members, commissioners and legislators. The company already had simulation scenarios for civilians for community engagement and education purposes. Careful to keep tactical information confined to law enforcement professionals, the civilian scenarios have had a universally positive impact on helping civilians understand the complexity of decisions officers face.

Potential additions to current civilian simulation scenarios could include protocols for concealed carry permit holders when in contact with police officers, how citizens can respond near a K9 operation, or best general practices if pulled over by police.

Public expectations

At a time when voices are repeating the need for de-escalation training, some fear that simulation training is a course in how to kill. This misunderstanding is the opposite of what has been the result of years of development in simulation training.

Legacy systems from the 1980s started as training in simple decision-making – shoot or don’t shoot. Early systems showed a video on a laserdisc that froze once a sim shot was fired. Subsequent products began branching into more complicated scenarios and more realistic weapon reactions.

Today’s most sophisticated systems provide the trainee the opportunity to engage with de-escalation techniques like slowing things down, listening to the simulated subject and responding to an Autistic person, and include a variety of non-force scripts that can lead to successful de-escalation without the use of force.

The science behind simulation

Simulation training developers incorporate the best of what is known regarding human performance limitations and adult learning when developing training curricula. This knowledge is not widely known by the public, or by many in police leadership.

Experiencing the physical and emotional factors of decision-making may be the only way to help policymakers understand the impact of limitations on force options and expectations for success in de-escalation in all situations.

A lesson for locals

Citizens deserve accountability from elected leaders and policymakers who create rules that affect public safety. Requiring members of legislative bodies and police review boards to have some level of training and knowledge about the matters over which they preside is sound policy. Just as government leaders are currently required to take training from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be eligible for grants and disaster funds, such leaders could also be required to be exposed to police training before judging police matters.

It is not likely that politicians will impose education requirements on themselves, so the burden is on the citizenry to make those demands, as Kendra Cook has. Citizens like Cook and other advocates can publicly request that law enforcement policymakers know what they are talking about. Engaging in simulation training is a reasonable demand that should generate public attention, especially if the public is invited to participate in that training as well. This can bring pressure on politicians to respond by agreeing, refusing, or ignoring the demand, each of which has its political consequences. If those policymakers refuse, that refusal can be publicized as part of the debate on how police reform is being managed. This potential strategy by citizen advocates could be one key to keep those calling for police accountability to be accountable themselves.

NEXT: Setting up use of force training for community education

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.